Sunday, 7 January 2018

Black Mirror Season 4

The following assumes that you have watched every episode of new Black Mirror, so contains spoilers.

USS Callister

Starting off with probably the biggest budget and the wobbliest script, USS Callister begins as a Star Trek parody, morphs into a cringey workplace comedy, becomes a hellish digital nightmare and finally a take down of angry nerd-bro male entitlement.

It's the latter two where the episode does it's best work. Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons, great as always) is using the DNA of co-workers who have wronged him (e.g. by not fancying him) and created digital copies of them in the VR MMO game he created. As always in Black Mirror, existence for digital copies is hugely unpleasant, with the avatars completely at Daley's whim. He physically and psychologically tortures them for disobedience or the lolz. In a nice nerdy touch, none of the copies have genitals and Daly only every chastely kisses the female clones, real intimacy being beyond his comprehension.

USS Callister is too long, the Star Trek style heroics at the end as the avatars rebel is undercooked and the happy ending totally tacked on and unearned. The themes about angry male nerds resonate however and the plight of the copies is genuinely unsettling for a while – 7


A common criticism of Black Mirror is that it only ever says “Computers are bad lol”. However, what every episode actually says is that humans are (usually) bad and technology can help push their worst instincts to horrible if logical extremes.

Arkangel is season 4's best example of this. A chip allows a mother to see what her daughter sees and even filter the things which stress her out (like the nasty neighbourhood dog). It's already horribly intrusive when the daughter is a toddler, but it becomes worse as she ages. Though the mother claims to have thrown the monitor out, she pulls it out of the attic when the teenager daughter lies about where she is. Unfortunately she sees her having sex and doing her one and only line of coke with her dealer boyfriend. Things inevitably spiral downwards.

Arkangel is full of lovely storytelling details (the daughter nearly not surviving her birth triggering the overprotectiveness of the mother, the fact that the Arkangel system is banned in Europe, the daughter making friends with the dog as she comes out of her shell), along with nice direction by Jodie Foster. A lot of people focus of the twists in Black Mirror, but for many episodes (including this one) are more about the themes they develop. The plot may be a little flabby, but it totally succeeds in showing how even parental love can turn toxic when technology allows it to be pushed to awful extremes – 7


The idea that your memories can not only be seen but used as evidence is an effectively nightmarish one (in that I literally had a nightmare about it after watching this episode), but it's not used to great effect here. The spiral of violence as Mia (Andrea Riseborough, predictably awesome) rushes to cover her tracks is as bleak and grim as Black Mirror ever gets, but much of the episode feels like treading water. The investigation into an insurance claim by Shazia (an endearing performance by Kiran Sonia Sawar) using the memory scanning device seems to drag on forever, and while it is necessary to show how she moves closer to Mia and has the odd nice touch it doesn't make for thrilling viewing.

So Mia has to kill Shazia so she doesn't report the murder of the former's ex-boyfriend seen in her memories, then Shazia's likeable, dopey husband because he knew where she was going, then their baby son so his memories can't be scanned. To twist the knife further the latter is blind, but in the shittiest plot twist in Black Mirror history, his pet guinea pig saw everything and can have his memories scanned! Yeah...

There are some nice performances, it's filmed in Iceland (for some undisclosed reason, no-one actually seems to be Icelandic) which obviously looks absolutely gorgeous, but this is a weak episode - 5

Hang The DJ

Following two people as they embark on a series on relationships dictated by The System, Hang The DJ has an intriguing premise which just about follows through on in a satisfying way. The hints of a more dystopian undertow are nicely done and the twist is up there with the series' best.

The idea that the characters we are following are simply simulations and part of a dating app is a good one, though it does raise a few troubling questions based on the rest of the series. What makes the fate of these clones any different from the ones in USS Callister or White Christmas? I guess that in this case the simulations are (mostly) enjoying themselves (they can actually have sex at least). But Frank (Joe Cole) ends up a year long relationship with someone who despises him, while Amy (Georgina Campbell) starts to question whether the system is working.

The episode ends with real life Amy and Frank meeting in a bar, with their dating apps showing they are a 99.8% match for each other. This after 1000 simulations were run are they rebelled 998 times. Hang The DJ wants to be this season's San Junipero with it's ostensibly happy ending, but it's not quite up there with that series high point. It's well acted with some nice character work in the script, but seems a bit hollow. - 7


A woman is chased across an apocalyptic landscape by a murderous robot dog. That's it, the sum of the plot for this episode. There's no moral about technology pushing human behaviour to it's worse excesses, no bleak satire, no twist at the end. Yet it still manages to be the best episode of the season.

The reasons it works so well are many. There's the spare, taut script which gives nothing away about why society collapsed and focusses instead on the desperate fight for survival. There's the tense direction (from 30 Days of Night helmer David Slade) and beautiful monochrome photography. The “dog” is both terrifying and endearing, like a cuter version of Yul Brynner in Westworld. Best of all there's the central performance from Maxine Peake, doing a lot with very little.

Much as Hang The DJ wants to be this season's San Junipero, I think that honour actually belongs to Metalhead. This both because it successfully upends the normal Black Mirror conventions and is easily the best episode of it's year. - 9

Black Museum

Being three linked stories which inevitably conjoin by the end, the previous episode this is most reminiscent of is the “festive” special White Christmas. Unlike said episode this one isn't particularly great.

The nightmare situations seems to be Black Mirror by numbers, the characters all cyphers. This may be intentional, given that they're being told by heartless antagonist Rolo, but it doesn't make for interesting viewing. The ideas aren't bad per se, and Carrie's predicament in the middle story is particularly unpleasant, but we've seen these “digital copies being put through hell” stories a few times now. Could it be that Black Mirror is running out of ideas?

Black Museum does actually feel like a series finale. There are references to every other episode throughout (which annoyed me quite a bit if I'm being honest). It also feels like the series becoming a parody of itself (on purpose rather than accidentally like with Shut Up and Dance last year). Could Rolo really be Charlie Brooker, dishing out cruel punishments to those who use cutting edge technology? Are we the tourists who come to electrocute the digital copy of a condemned prisoner over and over again?

I'm not sure if this episode is deep enough to warrant the above pretentious waffling. It's a below average episode of TV either way, the lowest point of another hit and miss season – 5

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